The effort to impose some sort of international space traffic control on the US, which owns nearly half of the 900 satellites now in orbit, would not only negate the principal of freedom of space, which is the basis of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, by giving effective sovereignty to a UN controlled institution, but it would give such an institution control over where and when the US could fly its military satellites. The US does not need to ask permission to sail the high seas: neither should the US have to ask for permission to operate in space.
Invariably in war, striking an undefended weak point, especially a critical communications link, is a great advantage to the attacker. America’s satellites are the key to making our high technology war fighting systems work effectively; they are even more important in helping to avoid deaths from ‘friendly fire,’ and to civilians from stray bombs and shells. Destroying them would be a high priority at the beginning of any major conflict. A ban on space weapons would insure that they would be totally vulnerable to attack; this is what has been called a “Space Pearl Harbor.”
Such an attack would be even worse than Pearl Harbor, as the targets would not just be a few old battleships, but would be the heart of America’s intelligence, communications and navigation systems. After such an attack this country and its leaders would be effectively, blind deaf and dumb.
Not only will a ban leave America’s essential space assets defended by nothing more than an unenforceable international agreement, but it will rule out, at least for as long as it lasts, any work on a space based missile defense system. This of course is one of the main reasons why the space weapons ban is being pursued so vigorously by Arms Control advocates. Effective multi-layered missile defense, the kind that can truly defend against a large scale nuclear missile attack, needs to have a system that can shoot down lots of long range missiles in the ‘boost phase’ as they are lifting off and spewing out unbelievable amounts of heat. The best tool for this purpose was the Brilliant Pebble program that was developed during the George H.W. Bush administration and canceled in the first year of the Clinton administration.
When George W. Bush came into office and withdrew from the much violated ABM Treaty that forbade America from defending itself against ballistic missile attacks, he failed to revive the program and instead went for a slightly more robust version of the National Missile Defense system that the Clinton administration had embarked on under pressure from the GOP Congress.
Space and Missile Defense are closely intertwined issues. If the Obama administration decides to join in an unwise and unverifiable ban on space weapons merely to make a few misguided ‘soft power’ advocates feel good, then it will have to be fought tooth and nail by those who do not want to see America’s real military strength weakened.
Our 21st century civilization depends directly on space for everything from ATM operations and cell phones to agriculture and even the interpretation of X-rays. Indirectly most of the major breakthroughs that lead to the computer revolution were due to the space program of the 1960s that culminated in the Apollo 11 Moon landing whose 40th anniversary we will celebrate in July of this year.
NASA’s exploration program hopes to get America back to the Moon before 2020 and eventually to land humans on Mars. Opening up the Solar System to mankind is the greatest adventure of our time. The energy and mineral resources out there are essential if we want to create a clean and prosperous Earth.
We also know that every place people go they take their conflicts with them there is no reason to think that outer space is any different. Space has always been ‘militarized’. Ever since the first Nazi V-2 rocket passed beyond the upper atmosphere, on its way to hit London, space has been a theater of war.
The first satellite, Russia’s Sputnik, was put into orbit on top of a missile designed to drop a hydrogen bomb on America’s cities. Space technology has always gone hand in hand with military needs. Weather satellites communications satellites, navigation satellites were all originally developed for the Defense Department. Just as important, all of America’s military leaders from the Commander in Chief down to the most junior lieutenant or sergeant in Iraq or Afghanistan depend on our spy satellites for accurate, timely, life saving information.
It may come as a shock to most Americans but every single one of these essential spacecraft is utterly defenseless. Their orbits are well known; they are protected only by the belief that if they were attacked the US would retaliate violently against whoever was responsible. This belief has never been tested. If in fact a US satellite were attacked there is reason to believe that neither the Air Force Space Command (AFSC) nor the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) who control almost all of our military space assets would be able to tell who was responsible.
In September of 2008 America’s latest and most advanced early warning satellite, the DSP-23 (for Defense Support Program) launched in November 2007, ceased to function. This type of satellite has long been among the most important US military spacecraft. Equipped with extremely sensitive heat detectors and stationed in what is called Geosynchronous Orbit more than 22,000 miles up, they monitor the Earth’s surface looking for the telltale signs of a missile launch. In 1991 they gave essential warning to US forces in the Gulf and to Israel every time Saddam launched a Scud. During the Cold War they were designed to give the US President anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes warning of a nuclear attack on the homeland.
The mysterious loss of DSP-23 could simply be the result of an accident, or it could have been caused by something less benign. The Air Force sent a pair of small experimental ‘inspection satellites to take a look at the out of control and drifting spacecraft. No results from this inspection have been released. This inspection has proven sensitive in more ways than one. It showed that the US does have the capability to fly close to any object in orbit and to take a careful look. If AFSC can do that; they can, of course, bang into whatever object it is inspecting and destroy it, the same method that Soviet Russia developed and deployed back in the 1970s. This is called a Co-Orbital Anti Satellite (ASAT) weapon.
This possibility has upset many Arms Control advocates who think that the US by developing such systems is setting a bad example. Yet other ASAT weapons are available to nations that lack the sophisticated US space industry. In January 2007, China tested a Direct Ascent ASAT weapon and destroyed one of their old weather satellites at about 500 miles altitude. This test created thousands of pieces of debris most of which is still circling the Earth, creating hazards to everything from the International Space Station to some European environmental research satellites.
On February 11 2009 the collision between Cosmos 2251, an old Russian military satellite and a US Iridium communications satellite at approximately 500 miles over Siberia, produced at least two more debris clouds that will circle the Earth for years and possibly endanger other satellites. This proves in any case the ease with which any spacecraft can be turned into an ASAT weapon.
Ultimately, this event may also show how easy it is to test or to use an ASAT weapon without having to admit that one has done so. The Russian satellite, launched in 1993, was ostensibly inactive, but there is really no way of knowing this. Some experts have long speculated that some older satellites have been turned into ‘space mines’, that can be activated at will. No one has ever proven this, but in any case the suspicion is not going to go away.
Indeed, since the DSP- 23 ceased to function there have been a number of unusual satellite accidents. In January a commercial communications satellite belonging to SES of Luxembourg, ‘Astra 5A, was working fine one moment and then went into emergency sun acquisition mode the next.” Launched in 1997, this satellite was, at the time of the incident, being used to expand broadcast services to Central and Eastern Europe.
More recently, at least one other satellite, Eutelsat W2M, has failed in orbit. This could just be a coincidence, or it could be something else. So far, there is no way to reliably verify what has caused these outages. If they were the result of attacks carried out using so-called “Counterspace Devices,” which are essentially high powered jamming systems, it would be a difficult case to prove.
A ban on space weapons, either with a treaty or more likely with a so-called “Rules of the Road” agreement, sometimes referred to as an International Code of Conduct on Outer Space Activities, would do nothing to stop these kinds of attacks. In fact, it would make them easier, as the US and other Western nations would be forbidden from putting active defensive systems on their spacecraft, as well as from developing their own ASAT weapons.
However there are indications that cooler heads may prevail, when the Space Weapons Ban idea was put up on the White House web site, sources indicate that the leaders of the National Security Council objected strenuously. This may just be a sign of a turf battle between the NSC and some of the more liberal political types, but it may be a sign that the new President does not want to be the one who will drive a stake through the heart of America’s military power.